Using evidence to influence policy: Oxfam’s experience

November 2, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam has got a new paper out on how it uses evidence to influence policy. My colleague Ruth Mayne led on it (along with other Oxfam colleagues, I chipped in a few ideas). The paper brought together lots of new (to me) examples to illustrate how Oxfam seeks influence through research, while Ruth and Paul Cairney added some useful academic viewpoints on the research → policy process. I recommend it. Here’s the basic story:

‘Policymaking is rarely ‘evidence-based’. Rather, policy can only be strongly evidence-informed if its advocates act effectively. Policy theories suggest that they can do so by learning the rules of political systems, and by forming relationships and networks with key actors to build up enough knowledge of their environment and trust from their audience. This knowledge allows them to craft effective influencing strategies, such as to tell a persuasive and timely story about an urgent policy problem and its most feasible solution.

Empirical case studies help explain when, how, and why such strategies work in context. If analysed carefully, they can provide transferable lessons for researchers and advocates that are seeking to inform or influence policymaking. Oxfam Great Britain has become an experienced and effective advocate of evidence-informed policy change, offering lessons for building effective action. In this article, we combine insights from policy studies with specific case studies of Oxfam campaigns to describe four ways to promote the uptake of research evidence in policy:

(1) learn how policymaking works,

(2) design evidence to maximise its influence on specific audiences,

(3) design and use additional influencing strategies such as insider persuasion or outsider pressure, and adapt the presentation of evidence and influencing strategies to the changing context, and

(4) embrace trial and error. The supply of evidence is one important but insufficient part of this story.’

Linking audiences and evidence types

There’s a handy table on adapting narratives and research to the policy target.

And here’s the conclusion:

‘The use of evidence for policy influencing has many ingredients: a robust evidence base, framing and persuasion, simple storytelling, building coalitions, learning the rules of the game in many different systems, the use of complementary influencing strategies, and a process of continuous reflection and change in light of experience and context.

Practical experiences, such as Oxfam’s, show that effective policy influencing requires a wide understanding of the role of research evidence. This message can be gleaned from a summary of the many steps from evidence to impact, as follows.

  • Take a value and evidence based stance to identify the need for change in policy and policymaking.
  • Identify the actors with the power to change policy, and the actors able to influence policymakers.
  • Understand which strategies help produce most change, focusing on specific institutions and wider contextual trends.
  • Identify people affected by the research and your target audiences, and work with them throughout relevant stages of research planning and production.
  • Learn how to frame your evidence and provide it to your audience at the right time, using powerful visuals and well-known messengers.
  • Test and adapt insider, outsider and other influencing strategies in light of experience, using trial and error across political systems and over time.
  • Stay agile, engage with policymakers readily and continuously, respond quickly to events, test and learn from your strategies, and be prepared to trade-off accurate but ineffective versus simplified and effective messages.

In other words, by showing the scale of this task, we show that evidence alone will not come close to making the difference.’

But I still recommend you read the full paper – it’s only 16 pages – Open Access, natch.